GoAbroad Interview

Kiah Zellner-Smith - Marketing Assistant & IES Abroad Alum

Kiah Zellner-Smith - Marketing Assistant & IES Abroad Alum

Kiah is the marketing assistant at IES Abroad. She earned her bachelor’s in American studies, education, and psychology from Macalester College. While completing her undergraduate degree she studied abroad on the pilot semester of the IES Abroad Rio de Janeiro program, inspiring her to enter the field of international education. When not at work she enjoys daydreaming about traveling the world, journaling, and going to live music events. Kiah now lives in Chicago.

You were a standout alumna of IES Abroad’s Rio de Janeiro program. How did your experience abroad impact your life and your decision to make a career in international education?

My experience abroad provided a strikingly clear reflection of who I am as a person, how I adapt to new surroundings, and who I am away from the influence of others. It forced me to confront a lot of cultural biases I didn’t know I had, and allowed me to see what areas of myself needed work. I truly believe studying abroad polished me in ways that would have been impossible had I not gone.

Shopping on Ilha Grande Island, Brazil

On a weekend excursion to Ilha Grande, an island off the coast of Rio de Janeiro

After such a powerful and humbling experience in Rio de Janeiro, it was evident that I wanted to encourage students like myself to take advantage of studying abroad. I think if more people were given the opportunity to travel and actively step outside their comfort zones, we would see a huge change in the way our world operates. There would be a positive shift in how we approach and interact with one another, our understanding of “community” would broaden, and we would open ourselves up to the unfamiliar. Instead of fearing the unknown and the different, we would see the immense value in it and would actively invite it into our lives. I’m passionate about international education because I believe it is one of the most effective ways to bring people together.

What advice would you give to other minority students as to why they should study abroad?

Studying abroad in Rio de Janeiro was invaluable for me because there are few places in the world where so much of the population identifies as mixed race, and it was the first time in my life where I was more conscious of my nationality than of my racial identity. It was a unique opportunity to live in another country with the same deep ties to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, but shaped by its own particular cultural and political forces. I was and still am very interested in the history and distinct culture of Afro-Brazilians, in comparison to that of African-Americans. I find the relationship between the past and the present intriguing, what changes and what remains between people with shared origins and shared histories.

I think students of color should study abroad because when you immerse yourself within another culture, you inevitably develop a deeper, more well-rounded sense of self. You come back from abroad with a more nuanced understanding of your own racial identity and you gain a glimpse into the complexities of culture and community worldwide. When you learn about others you also explore deep parts of yourself, and I think taking that leap into both external and internal discovery is greatly beneficial to anyone.

As a student you were awarded IES Abroad’s Blogger of the Year award for your video blog of your experience in Brazil. As a result, you attended IES Abroad’s Annual Conference and presented with the Rio Center Director. What was this experience like?

It was one of the most fulfilling and affirming experiences of my life. I got to meet all these wonderful people who had watched and enjoyed my videos, and I had no idea I was going to receive that kind of support. I also had the honor of presenting on the first semester of the Rio de Janeiro program with my Center Director, Octavio di Leo, and I broke down in tears at the end of my presentation. That was the moment it became clear to me that the challenges I faced abroad were worth it. Brazil pushed me more than I thought I could withstand, but it took that breaking point to realize what I was capable of, as well as all the things I had already accomplished along the way.

2013 IES Abroad Annual Conference presentations

Presenting at the 2013 IES Abroad Annual Conference with Rio de Janeiro center director, Octavio di Leo

How did you make the transition from program participant to IES Abroad employee?

While at the IES Abroad Annual Conference I was taken under the wing of the marketing department, so I felt a certain level of camaraderie with them right off the bat. Then, the following summer I was asked to present at the IES Abroad annual board of directors meeting, which once again was an overwhelmingly positive experience. From studying with IES Abroad in Rio, to presenting at their Chicago headquarters twice, I got to know them both as an organization and as individual people. This year, when a position opened up that I was qualified for, I think on both their end and mine we thought it could be a good fit.

What does an average day as marketing assistant entail?

Each day I do some tasks related to IES Abroad Study Abroad Film Festival, which I manage. I also typically help our graphic designer with catalog and print materials, like assisting in finding photos and quotes or checking edits. I write the original content and news stories for our site, work on video projects, and am a superuser for our China and Japan centers. Because I assist multiple people, the range of my tasks is fairly broad and changes on a daily basis; I never get bored!

What made IES Abroad stand out to you when looking at study abroad program options?

I knew Rio de Janeiro was where I wanted to study abroad, but every program I found had either Spanish or Portuguese language requirements, and I had studied French for the past seven years. I was genuinely interested in Brazil and didn’t want that to stop me from studying there. Luckily IES Abroad’s Rio de Janeiro program accepts students who don’t have backgrounds in those languages. They also offered awesome weekend trips, like the Amazon and Ilha Grande, which I knew would be too difficult to plan on my own.

Piranha fishing in the Amazon

Piranha fishing in the Amazon

Your academic background is in American racial studies, educational studies, and psychology. How do you apply this knowledge to your role in marketing and to your work with diverse student populations?

No matter what I’m doing, I find it important to draw from both my own experiences and my studies, an understanding of social justice, racial politics, and culturally-relevant education models. Even if it’s a task that at first glance doesn’t seem like it pertains to underrepresented students, I want to still be thinking and acting in a progressive, conscious, and equitable manner. I think it’s imperative that as an organization with a large focus on diversity and accessibility, we be aware of how we can offer all of our students dynamic and supportive study abroad programs.

You’re fairly new to the IES Abroad team, what has been your first impression now that you are on the other side?

Being on the other side has shed light on how hard everyone in this office works for the benefit of our students. I was an IES Abroad student just two years ago, and at that time I didn’t realize how many people were behind the scenes working on my behalf. I now have a greater appreciation for everyone involved every step of the way; it takes a village.

What is your favorite part about working for IES Abroad so far?

I have a great team that has been supportive and patient with me as I learn and grow here, and I appreciate that immensely. Even though I don’t have a background in marketing, they help me hone other skill sets I have that are just as applicable and useful to this position.

I also find it inspiring to be in a such a worldly environment. The constant trips my co-workers take, compounded by the multitude of places our students travel to, has further opened my eyes to how exquisite the world is. I now have a list of sites, like the Longman Grottos in China or the Casa Del Arbol in Ecuador, that I am passionate about visiting. Working at IES Abroad has pushed me to see the bigger picture, that there are no limits to where I can go or what I can do, and overall, that one should always keep an element of adventure in their life!

Listening to music at Pedra do Sal in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Hanging with my roommates during a class field trip to Pedra do Sal, a historical site that hosts live music and samba dancing

What are your goals for the rest of 2015 when it comes to effectively marketing of IES Abroad to new groups?

As a team we are looking into several new ways to promote our programs to college students across a variety of platforms. Individually, I would really like to focus on our usage of video media and how we can better utilize that to show students the amazing things we offer. I would also like to explore how we might expand our social media marketing, because millennials are very temporal in the way they communicate with one another. Reaching them in creative, captivating, and relevant ways is a continuous goal of mine.